Sources of the Jesus Tradition: Separating History from Myth

Who was the “real Jesus”? Given the historical unreliability of the gospels and other ancient sources, can this question ever be answered? Is it possible that a historical Jesus never existed?

These questions and more are addressed in this collection of expert essays based on the latest research in New Testament scholarship. All of the authors are participants in the Jesus Project, a new investigation into the origins of Christianity directed by R. Joseph Hoffmann under the auspices of the Council for the Scientific Examination of Religion at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, NY. Dr. Hoffmann describes the project as a beneficiary of its history, building on the work of prior inquiry and acknowledging important advances in the reconstruction of Christian origins in the last two centuries. It is “new” in advocating a faith-free approach to the sources and greater attention to method than previous inquiries.

The scholars represented in this volume are among the finest in the world. Included are not only experts in New Testament studies but also specialists in archeology, legal history, intertestamental Judaism, educational studies, Near Eastern studies, philosophy, and classics.

The first fruits of this scholarly collaboration are gathered together in this excellent anthology, which will be a welcome addition to the libraries of anyone with an interest in Christian origins.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Sources of the Jesus Tradition: Separating History from Myth

  1. Review

    Book Review: Sources of the Jesus Tradition: Separating History from Myth by R. Joseph Hoffmann, Editor; Prometheus Books, Amherst New York 2010; ISBN 978-1-61614-189; 287 pp.

    This book is described on its back cover as a “captivating collection of expert essays based on the latest research in New Testament scholarship. All of the authors are participants in the Jesus Project, a new investigation into the origins of Christianity directed by R. Joseph Hoffmann under the auspices of the Council for the Scientific Examination of Religion at the Centre for Inquiry”, which is located in Amherst, New York.

    We are then informed that “the scholars represented in this volume are among the finest in the world” and that its research methodology includes “its advocacy of a faith-free approach to the sources and greater attention to method than any previous inquiries”.

    The Jesus Project

    The earlier Jesus Seminar explored what words and works reported in the Gospels could be traced back to a historically-existing Jesus and its participants mostly maintained the acceptance of Jesus’ actual existence as they postulated his occupational role. In contrast, the Jesus Project added to this the further ontological question: “Was there in fact a fellow-human, biological, historical ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, who actually existed, who lived in Palestine and who journeyed through Galilee and Judea with his message about the ‘kingdom of God’ back in the first century of our era”.
    World-wide publicity was given to the formation of this Jesus Project in 2007, at a conference held at the University of California at Davis, with the theme of “Scripture and Skepticism”. Stress was put on the interdependence of knowledge and on scholarly collaboration.

    However, less publicity was given to events in 2009 when the Jesus Project was cancelled and its Director resigned. The recession was blamed by some for the withdrawal of funding.

    Conference at Amherst in 2008

    Fortunately, between these two beginning and ending dates, a Conference was held in the first weekend of December 2008 at Amherst, which included fourteen talks by eminent scholars in wide-ranging fields. These papers were grouped together under a progression of most appropriate themes, including [1] Evidence and methods; [2] Evidence of earliest Christianity; [3] Sayings of Jesus; [4] the Formation of the Jesus Traditions and [5] a Summary. This program, together with the speakers and their topics, are posted on the “Centre for Inquiry” website.

    The good news for those who were unable to attend this Conference is that ten of these papers are included in this book, together with notes and references to further books. An excellent paper by J. Harold Ellens on “Jesus’ Apocalyptic Vision and the Psychodynamics of Delusion”, which could not be presented, is included.

    On the negative side, several interesting-looking papers listed on the program are not published in the book, including James Tabor’s “A Resurrected Jesus Tradition with an Intact Tomb” and A. J. Droge’s paper on “Jesus and Ned Ludd: What’s in a name?” These certainly appear to be very interesting papers relating to the depiction of the Resurrection in the Gospel of Peter and to the created history of the mythical Ned Ludd, depicted founder of and inspiration for the Luddites. In addition, the grouping of the papers at the Conference in a logical sequence of themes was replaced in the book by a purely random and very messy order of the papers.

    The book also failed to include Bruce Chilton’s paper on the “Aramaic Jesus Traditions” and replaced it with an unrelated paper on the Temple and the origin of the Eucharist.

    Academic Methodology

    In relation to academic and scholarly approaches to what can be known about Jesus or Joshua in Palestine in the first century, R. Joseph Hoffmann has left readers in no doubt about its methodologically agnostic approach to the question of Jesus’ historical existence, its assessment of the quality of the evidence available for looking at this vexed issue and its requirement not to mix theological motives and historical inquiry. This suggests the refusal to privilege any of the many deities revered in the Greco-Roman world, including the Roman Jupiter or Jove and the Jewish El and Yahweh. Clearly historical analysis involves the articulation, the assessment and the application, in relation to the relevant past events, persons and places by making use of the very best scientific technology and methodology in fields related to the hard sciences.

    Three Ontological Jesuses

    The endless “Quest for the Historical Jesus” is usually understood to be the on-going attempts to locate and to correctly describe and evaluate the first-century’s historical Jesus. This quest involves the search for a description of the supposed Jewish and Galilean human being, depicted variously as a Teacher, a Rabbi, a Preacher, a Missionary, a Faith Healer, an Exorcist, a Cynic, a Revolutionary and various other suggested historical roles. The early Christian groups which happily agreed with such a human Jesus were of course those called “Adoptionists”. In this approach, analogies are assumed between this Jesus as a human being and we present-day human beings. Hence, this quest needs not only documentary, archaeological or artefactual sources of information about this now very famous and influential first century human being but also suitable criteria for assessing the veracity and truth-claims of this information. The Jesus Seminar has devoted much time and energy and has produced much literature in relation to this hypothetical Jesus No. 1.

    Hermeneutics for Humanities

    However, science faces huge problems when it attempts to deal with Jesuses Nos. 2 and 3? The early Mono-physites took an opposite position to that of the Adoptionists, when they dogmatically depicted Jesus No. 2 as being purely divine and as possessing only one nature, which was the divine nature. Their Jesus thus tended to be a hypothetical Heavenly Being.

    The most popular Jesus has been Jesus No. 3, the Hypo-statical Being, with his divine nature shared with the Trinity’s Father and Spirit but being a part of a deity with three divine persons, each being distinct from the others. Within this Trinity, a further intra-Trinitarian refinement depicts Jesus No. 3 with both a duo-physite, divine and human nature. This is the Jesus of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christian branches over the past several thousand years and his metaphysical and supernatural dimensions are clearly a challenge to scientific methodology.

    Hence, the humanities need to enter the historical and historio-graphical scene as well, when the literal and sign-based language of science and technology needs to be augmented by the non-literal, literary, symbolically expressed and explicated language of metaphor, myth, ritual and supra-human narrative. This occurs when the Apostle Paul equates and presents as identical the Hebrew deity Yahweh and Jesus/Joshua (meaning “Yahweh Saves”). Paul labels each “Lord”, which in Hebrew is “Adonai” and in Greek “Kyrios”. Clearly, the Gospels present Jesus as both a Son of Man or human being and as a Son of God or Yahweh.

    The book’s title includes “Separating History from Myth”, but in my view, it needs to also include “Separating Myth from History”. By doing this, the mythology can also be respected and can in a literary manner be dealt with as symbolical metaphor. Myth is valuable for anagogical appropriation in the fostering of soul-sustenance and for the individual’s soul-journey or spiritual path from womb to tomb in the tradition of the mythical life-story of Jesus Christ, as presented metaphorically in the Four Gospels. There is of course a place for “hard science” but it has its limitations. The “soft sciences” of the humanities and the literary realm also need to be acknowledged for spiritual sustenance and Carl Jung has depicted as the now very widely acknowledged universal pattern for the human’s journey through life, the three stages of unconscious wholeness, the widely-experienced conscious un-wholeness and the urge for conscious and differentiating wholeness.

    Some Summaries and Highlights

    Readers familiar with first-century religious, cultural and political issues and research will find most of the papers easy to follow. However, several are very technical and are in the category of very difficult “hard science!” No doubt the inclusion of a summary of the main points and a statement of conclusions for each chapter would have helped, especially in relation to the long list of “Dominical Logia” or Logoi on pages 18-26 and to the complex mathematical “Bayesian Flowchart” on page 108.
    Despite some unfortunate omissions from this book and a lack of thematic development in its contents, these brief summaries and highlights should encourage the reading of this scholarly book for a deeper exploration of the vexed question of the historicity and actual existence of a first-century Jesus. This is difficult because, as mentioned above, it also includes the form and nature of this “historical Jesus” as depicted in the Gospels, in terms of being both a human Jewish Jesus/Joshua or Son of Man and being a divine Cosmic Christ, Logos and Son of Yahweh. No doubt the authors below have also asked themselves whether such hypothetical divine, first-century constructs can ever become humanistic, historical concrete events, places and actual living personalities.

    Dennis R. MacDonald, a professor at Claremont School of Theology, articulates “An Alternative Q and the Quest for the earthly Jesus” (pp.17-44). He is well known for his work on Homer’s influence on Mark’s Gospel but his suggestion here is that Luke made use of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, as well as the Sayings referred to by Papias labelled “Dominical Logia”. MacDonald suggests that the Logia in turn were developments of themes Found in the Septuagint book of Deuteronomy.

    Popular Mythology in the Roman Empire

    Justin Meggitt, director of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge, explores “Popular Mythology in the Early Empire and the Multiplicity of Jesus Traditions” (pp.55-80). Important data is presented which relates to the evidence of the widespread and rapid formation of myths (p.68) and to the general interest in miraculous and supernatural events in stories and myths (p.69) within the ancient Greco-Roman culture. This is also the context of Christian narrative formation and myth-making in relation to the similar supernatural, miraculous and celestial elements in the Gospels and in the Apocryphal texts relating to Jesus/Joshua.
    Meggitt views the origins of Christianity as pluriform, poly-genic and as developing from multiple sources rather than as mono-genic or from a single source and he mentions the work of Crossan and Mack (p.73). Meggitt’s insights are certainly vital for any honest analysis of the historicity and/or mythical elements in relation to Christianity’s traditional founding-figure, Jesus of Nazareth and Christ the Lord.

    Richard C Carrier’s chapter on “Bayes’ Theorem” (pp.81-108) may hold the key to the resolution of two pressing issues in researching the “historical Jesus”. One is the current problems which arise when applying the various criteria for historicity in relation to the complexity of the character and concept of the first century “Jesus”. The other is the use and application of Bayes’ Theorem, which claims to be able to represent and assess sound historical reasoning. Jesus researchers will be hoping that enlightenment lies behind the complex, esoteric and highly mathematical “Baysian Flowchart” on page 108.

    Robert M Price explores “The Abhorrent Void: The Rapid Attribution of Fictive Sayings and Stories to a Mythic Jesus” (pp.109-117) by drawing attention to the many fabricated incidents and sayings of Jesus, which can be found in the Infancy Gospels. He then shows how quickly many stories and sayings supposedly relating to the life and experience of the prophet Mohammed and his successors were invented and fabricated in the oral tradition or “Hadith”. Price suggests that this same process happened to Jesus and it is a contributing factor to the agnosticism of Price in relation to the historicity of both the Galilean Jesus and the Heavenly Christ.

    The New Testament Canon

    David Trobisch is a professor of the New Testament at Bangor Theological Seminary. His very short chapter is titled “The Authorized Version of His Birth and Death” (pp.131-139), although his much longer talk at the Conference was titled “The Authorised Version”. No doubt the Editor has included in the Notes the book by David Trobisch titled “The First Edition of the New Testament”, which was published by Oxford University Press, Oxford in 2000 C.E. This book and his talk deal more extensively with the issue of the original New Testament canon. Trobisch presents the proposition that the present New Testament canon is based on an actual four-volume codex edition, which was published in about 150 C.E. This was partly in response to Marcion and a possible editor, redactor and publisher in the author’s view is Polycarp. He also suggests that the named authors of the Gospels were fictional inventions and attached to the Gospels in this process. At the same time, the whole New Testament text was redacted and solidified into the Textus Receptus.

    In his above-mentioned chapter, Trobisch only has space to explore the differences between the various versions of events in the Birth and Resurrection narratives within the four Gospels, which most studies of and introductions to the Four Gospels have repeatedly published.

    Frank Zindler’s chapter on “Prolegomenon to a Science of Christian Origins” (pp.140-156) reflects his former role as a professor of Geology and Neurobiology, as managing editor of American Atheist Press and as an Investigator over the past thirty years “the evidence adduced to prove the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth (p.143). He provides clear hints of his personal skepticism and agnosticism in relation to Jesus’ historicity but he is also keen to provide the best possible tools for researching this issue. He deplores the present poor state of New Testament Studies and suggests that larger and more user-friendly data-bases be set up to enable better scholarship, easier examination of all of the evidence and more efficient discovery of what has already been accomplished and researched (p.150).

    Ronald A. Lindsay is a lawyer and the President of the Centre for Inquiry in Buffalo, New York. This is reflected in his chapter on “Assessing the Evidence: Philosophical and Legal Perspectives” (pp.185-195), in which he analyses the problem of historicity and the sorting of questions which need to be asked and answered. These questions include what really counts as evidence, what evidence can we trust, what sort of an entity is this “Jesus” which this evidence is intended to satisfy and is this figure the actual and real Jesus, who lived in the first century. An issue raised is that stories are sometimes fabricated because people like to hear about outlandish actions and events. At the same time, the author regrets the lack of consensus about what exactly the Gospels, including the four canonical and the over thirty apocryphal Gospels were meant to communicate (p.188). All students of Mark’s Gospel are well aware of the many and varied theories about exactly why this Gospel of Mark was composed!

    Paul’s Jesus was a Celestial Being

    Gerd Luedemann is professor of New Testament Studies at Georg-August-University in Goettingen and his chapter “Paul as a Witness to the Historical Jesus” (pp.196-212) presents his view that Paul’s epistles show no knowledge of a historical Jesus beyond a few general and formulaic declarations of dogma. In his view, Paul’s Jesus was not based on any earthly Jesus but on a celestial, exalted Jesus, Son of Yahweh, Lord and Cosmic Christ. This has led the author to a position of agnosticism in relation to the actual existence of an earthly, terrestrial, flesh-and-blood Jewish Jesus. It also provides food for thought in relation to a corresponding celestial narrative for this Cosmic Christ or Yahweh Saves. The annual, astronomical solar journey depicts the annual suspension of the sun on the sun’s celestial cross or crossing-point, which is formed each year by the intersection of the Ecliptic and the Equator, as the sun is at this crossing-point during the northern hemisphere’s Spring equinox. Both Luedemann here and Richard Bauckham, in his book, “Jesus and the God of Israel: ‘God Crucified’ and other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity” (Paternoster,2008), which equates the Hebrew deity Yahweh with the Christian Jesus/Yahweh Saves, would see this need to re-investigate the Bible’s often over-looked and projected celestial and heavenly narratives. Their connections with the visible, astronomical features such as the sun, moon, stars, constellations as well as daily and seasonal cycles, clearly need much further investigation in relation to these mostly ignored Yahwistic celestial narratives.

    Finally, J. Harold Ellens presents a fascinating and valuable chapter, “Jesus Apocalyptic Vision and the Psychodynamics of Delusion” (pp. 213-256). This paper is over 40 pages and was not presented at the Amherst Conference in 2008. However, it has fortunately been included in this book of papers. Ellens sees no consensus at the end of various quests for the historical Jesus and in fact, he presents the issue of Jesus not only in terms of his historicity but in terms of his character and human-divine role as a God-Man in the New Testament’s Jesus Story. Hence, both the confessional orthodox and the free-thinking atheists will find it difficult to be objective in relation to “this figure, real or mythic,who has shaped the world for the last twenty centuries” (p. 215). Ellens therefore concludes that we are dealing with a complex “literary character” rather than with “a person which we can identify in history” (p.217). His presentation of the Son of Man sayings for example require four categories: the Son of man as (1) an earthly teacher and healer; (2) as a suffering servant who dies; (3) as a figure who experiences transcendental exaltation and (4) as an eschatological judge, who will return on the clouds of heaven in judgement at the end of history (p.223). This alone would clearly make any composition of the unauthorized “Biography of Jesus” based on empirical facts and only reliable sources the ultimate writer’s challenge!

    Meaning in Mythology

    Reports suggest that the “Jesus Project” has ceased to function and that the Director has resigned. As I see it, this group of scholars revealed profound honesty, intellectual integrity and academic scholarship and this honesty and regard for scientific methodology has led some free-thinkers to adopt agnosticism, atheism and to the assigning of the traditional material plus metaphysical Jesus to the realm of mythology. However, in relation to the Jesus Story, there has been a long-standing quest within Christianity for a spiritual path through life. Even if Christian teachings and dogmas are declared to be mythology, these mythical narratives can still be adapted symbolically for the soul’s spiritual journey through life by means of spiritual allegorical application and an anagogical appropriation, in the interests of soul-sustenance.

    Sadly, literalistic-minded, biblical Fundamentalists (who are obsessed with promoting their antiquated views widely over the air-waves) continue to fossilize their brand of super-natural Christianity, its thinking and its beliefs, back in the myth-friendly and miracle-hungry world of the first century several thousand years ago.

    Fortunately, there are still more open-minded free-thinkers today are not avoiding the frustrating task of bringing these early and often rather primitive Christian concepts and forms into our 21st century for both their de-mythologization in the quest for historical and geographical truth and their re-mythologization as helpful symbols and metaphors for our spiritual journeys and for soul sustenance. The Jesus Project may have gone and this book of conference papers may present some disappointing aspects and omissions. However, the spirit of honesty, integrity and the desire for the scientific and historical truth, as expressed by the former participants in this valuable book, all need to continue. No doubt as new generations try to come to terms with the many enigmas relating to the aims, characters, plots, the abrupt ending and other mysterious features in the Gospel of Mark which was the pioneering gospel, and with the theological problems and paradoxes within the pages of the Bible, the spirit of honesty and good intentions of the Jesus Project will live on. This attitude is needed in the continuing world-wide personal quests for both empirical, scientific explanations and for experiential, spiritual enlightenment. As the world fast approaches the astronomical Age of Aquarius, when the sun is in Aquarius at the Spring equinox and Aquarius features as the carrier of the Waters of Life and as the world seeks the required up-to-date scientific and perennial spiritual help for the above-stated quest, reading this useful book would make a very good start.

    John Noack, January 2012.

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